Pope Francis brings me back to my roots. That might sound strange coming from an Ismaili Muslim rather than a cradle Catholic. But like many, I faded from faith as an adolescent. It wasn’t an intentional rejection so much as a slow falling away. I didn’t think religion was backwards or stupid or sinful or even wrong, I just thought it was boring.
Until I came across Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. It was during my radical years in college, right about the time I figured out that anger was too dirty a fuel for my personal activism. Dorothy Day’s writing and the Catholic Worker’s actions were the clean alternatives that filled my tank, and my heart. Their activism was directed at loving people not hating the system. And they were quietly clear by how much it was motivated by God.
Until I spent time in Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality and felt the warm embrace of loving community that served the poor and marginalized, in contrast to the cold bureaucracy of social service agency, I never fathomed that the word ‘God’ could signal anything other than rules I’d rather not follow. What I learned reading Dorothy Day was how crucial connecting to the cosmic was to motivating loving solidarity. Once she found her faith, she lived in a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in solidarity with the poor for the next fifty years of her life, a commitment that I can only make sense of in the God-infused paradigm in which Dorothy Day lived.
I feel that force in Pope Francis. I felt it standing several thousand yards away from him at an event in DC. I felt it learning that he baffled the Church bureaucracy by holding a private mass several times a week at the Vatican, for the custodial staff. And I felt it, to the point of coming to tears, when I watched him point to a disabled child along his Washington parade route, beckoning for her parents to bring her forth so he could hold and bless her.
Why has this Pope touched so many people — observant Catholic and lapsed; Evangelical Protestant, Ismaili Muslim, Reform Jew, secular humanist, and on and on and on? I think the answer is that people want religion to be inspiring. We want religious leaders to model a standard of ethical excellence that we strive for ourselves. That is because we want to be better. Dorothy Day would say that her goal was to create a community where it was easier for people to be good. The fact is that I know I am far from good. I am too quick to anger and too slow to forgive. I pay too much attention to myself and think too little of others, especially those who are marginalized and who suffer.
I don’t need religion to make me more judgmental. I’m judgmental enough. I need religion to make me nicer, better. I think we all do. My Ismaili Muslim practice helps. So does the example of Pope Francis.
Bio: Eboo Patel is a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. He is an American Ismaili of Gujarati Indian heritage and founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that aims to promote interfaith cooperation. This blog has been published as a part of the #StartEmpathy series, an ongoing campaign by Ashoka for the Think it Up initiative.